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In Virtual Reality, You Can Comfort a Crying Child, Then Become That Child

And the whole thing makes you feel better about yourself.
November 12, 2014, 7:00pm

Virtual reality can allow you to play any character of your choosing, in  all manner of fantastical environs. But a new VR experiment offers another experience you'd never be able to pull off IRL: talking to yourself. And having that one-on-one chat with yourself could help you feel more compassion for yourself.

For a study published in PLOS One, researchers had 43 women who were "highly self-critical" put themselves in this scenario. Using an Oculus Rift, the participants first had to comfort a crying child using a set speech, as you can see in the video below. The child stops crying.

Then, things get weird: One group of the participants find themselves in the place of the child avatar. They then see their earlier avatar play back the compassionate words they'd just given to the child. Except now, they are the child, so they're basically comforting themselves.

"This specific experiment was to find a way to use virtual reality to allow people who found it difficult to give compassion to themselves to actually give themselves compassion," said co-author Mel Slater, professor of virtual environments at University College London and a research professor at the University of Barcelona.

It's more about the listening than the talking; in their paper, the researchers point out that self-criticism has been linked to depression, especially in women—hence the female participants.

Caroline Falconer, a psychologist at UCL who also worked on the study, said the idea came out of the  work of coauthor Paul Gilbert, who developed the idea of "compassion-focused therapy" to cultivate self-compassion.

"We know that people who are particularly high in compassion for other people and also self-compassion are better able to cope in the face of stress, negative live events, and low mood," she said. "Self-compassion is sort of a natural buffer to these things."

In the experiment, another group of participants had the same experience of comforting the child avatar but then watched their actions from a third-person perspective, rather than through the child's digital eyes. While this group still benefited from the experience of giving and observing the passionate behaviour, the researchers found that those who experienced their own comforting words from a first-hand perspective also saw an increase in self-compassion.

There's going to be a virtual reality setup in every psychologist's office

"This is one of the first demonstrations that immersive virtual reality can be used to inculcate positive emotions that are important for mental health as well as decrease negative emotions such as fear," the researchers wrote.

It's an effect that couldn't be achieved without virtual reality, even if the idea of becoming the child-sized recipient of your own advice sounds a little creepy.

"The main reason that we used a child is that we wanted our participants to feel comfortable being compassionate towards someone else," said Falconer. "We wanted to tap into something that was quite innate." She explained that there are additional social constraints around showing compassion to an adult—we wonder if they want or deserve to be comforted, for instance. It's basically just easier to act compassionately to a crying child, even in virtual reality.

Slater explained the whole experiment was like "a technologically very sophisticated way of role-playing," and added that, "the brain is very very flexible with respect to body representation."

And that, it seems, makes it an ideal tool for changing attitudes.

And it's not just about feeling better in yourself. Last year, for instance, Slater  worked on a study that found "light-skinned" people presented less racial bias towards "dark-skinned" people after they took part in an experiment that put them in the position of a black avatar.

As for the exercise in self-compassion, the idea is it could one day be used in therapy. Slater pointed out that virtual reality systems are quickly getting cheaper, which could even make this sort of virtual experience suitable for self-help applications.

"The idea of having not only a setup in every psychologist's office but also in everyone's home is now a reality," he said. "This is something that's going to happen."